Citizen Science from Home

Crowded feeder with White-crowned Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches and Yellow-rumped Warblers

This past winter I participated in Cornell Labs’ “Project FeederWatch.” I enjoy watching birds at my feeder and decided to turn my at-home bird watching hobby into a science project.

The survey runs each year from November through April, but you can join anytime during those months. You just need to choose two consecutive days each week to count the birds at your feeder and then submit the data online. You can spend as much or as little time as you choose.

Counting birds can be tricky because they don’t stay still! Participants are given plenty of detailed instructions on how to get as close to an accurate count as possible. The first few weeks, I took photos, then enlarged them on my computer to get a good count. Often it was hard to see who was who when the feeder was crowded and the birds kept flying off and on. But as time went by, I got a better feel for how to count.

Female Red-winged Blackbirds just passing through

Sometimes I would get a surprise when I looked at my enlarged photos. Some birds that I thought were sparrows were actually female Red-winged Blackbirds, who look nothing like their male counterparts. Another time a lone Pine Siskin was tucked in with the White-crowned Sparrows. I would have missed it if it weren’t for the photos. Later, I could identify it while looking through binoculars.

A lone Pine Siskin tucked in among the usual visitors

As I am still learning my western birds, I used a few identification apps such as Picture This, iNaturalist, Seek, and Merlin.

The annual participation fee for Project FeederWatch is $18, which covers staff, web design, data analysis and a year-end report. While one individual’s contribution may seem minor, the collective data helps scientists monitor bird distribution, abundance and changes in wintering ranges. This bird population data cannot be detected by any other method. That is how important your contributions are.

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